July 10, 2011

On Imagism by Amy Lowell

On Imagism
by Amy Lowell
from Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (New York: Macmillan Company, 1917)

We are now to deal with the work of the small group of poets known as Imagists. Later, I shall explain just what are the tenets of the Imagist School, but before beginning on the work of the two poets whose names stand at the head of this chapter, it is proper to state that they only represent a fraction of the Imagist group. Of course, any one who writes poetry from the same point of view might be said to write Imagistic verse, to be an Imagist, in short; but, in speaking of the Imagists as a group, I shall confine myself to those six poets whose work has appeared in the successive volumes of the annual anthology, Some Imagist Poets. These poets are exactly divided in nationality, three being American, three English. The English members of the Imagist group are Richard Aldington, F. S. Flint, and D. H. Lawrence, and I regret that this book, being confined to American poets, leaves me no opportunity to discuss the work of these Englishmen.

The three American Imagists are the lady who writes under the pseudonym of "H.D.," John Gould Fletcher, and myself. In this chapter, therefore, I shall consider only the work of "H.D." and John Gould Fletcher.However individual the work of the six Imagist poets is (and any one of who has read their anthology cannot fail to have observed it), the poems of "H.D." and Mr. Fletcher are enough in themselves to show the tendencies and aims of the group.

I suppose few literary movements have been so little understood as Imagism. Only a short time ago, in the "Yale Review," Professor John Erskine confessed that he had no clear idea of what was Imagist verse and what was not, and in unconscious proof of his ignorance, spoke of robert Frost and Edgar Lee Masters as Imagists.

To call a certain kind of writing "a school," and give it a name, is merely a convenient method of designating it when we wish to speak of it. We have adopted the same method in regard to distinguishing persons. We say John Smith and James Brown, because it is simpler than to say: six feet tall, blue eyes, straight nose—or the reverse of these attributes. Imagist verse is verse which is written in conformity with certain tenets voluntarily adopted by the poets as being those by which they consider the best poetry to be produced. They may be right or they may be wrong, but it is their belief.

Imagism, then, is a particular school, springing up within a larger, more comprehensive movement, the New Movement with which this whole book has had to do [Tendencies in Modern American Poetry]. This movement has yet received no convenient designation. We, who are of it, naturally have not the proper perspective to see it in all its historical significance. But we can safely claim it to be a "renaissance,’ a re-birth of the spirit of truth and beauty. It means a re-discovery of beauty in our modern world, and the originality and honesty to affirm that beauty in whatever manner is native to the poet.

I have shown Edwin Arlington Robinson and Robert Frost as the pioneers of the renaissance; I have shown Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg plunging forward in quest of change and freedom, hurling themselves against the harshness and materialism of existing conditions, shouting their beliefs, sometimes raucously, but always honestly and with abounding courage. Now, I am to show a condition, not changing, but changed. These poets not only express themselves differently, they see life and the universe from a different standpoint.

It is not over; the movement is yet in its infancy. Other poets will come and, perchance, perfect where these men have given the tools. Other writers, forgetting the stormy times in which this movement had its birth, will inherit in plentitude and calm that for which they have fought. Then our native flowers will bloom into a great garden, to be again conventionalized to a pleasance of stone statues and mathematical parterres awaiting a new change which shall displace it. This is the perpetually recurring history of literature, and of the world.

I have chosen the Imagists as representing the third stage of the present movement advisedly, for only in them do I see that complete alteration of point of view necessary to this third stage. An alteration, let me add, due solely to the beliefs -moral, religious, and artistic -inherent in the characters of these poets. Honest difference of opinion leads to honestly different work, and this must not be confused with the absurd outpourings of those gadflies of the arts who imitate the manners of others without an inkling of their souls; nor with those nefarious persons who endeavour to keep themselves before the public by means of a more or less clever charlatanism.

The spoken word, even the written word, is often misunderstood. I do not wish to be construed as stating that poets in the third stage are better, as poets, than those in the other two.
Fundamental beliefs change art, but do not, necessarily, either improve or injure it. Great poetry has been written at every stage of the world's history, but Homer did not write like Dante, nor Dante like Shakespeare, nor Shakespeare like Edgar Allan Poe. So, in literary criticism, one may assign a poet his place in a general movement without any attempt to appraise his individual merit by so doing.

Before taking up the work of "H.D." and John Gould Fletcher in detail, I think it would be well to consider, for a moment, what Imagism is, and for what those poets who style themselves " Imagists" stand.

In the preface to the anthology, Some Imagist Poets, [1916] there is set down a brief list of tenets to which the poets contributing to it mutually agreed. I do not mean that they pledged themselves as to a creed. I mean that they all found themselves in accord upon these simple rules.

I propose to take up these rules presently, one by one, and explain them in detail, but I will first set them down in order:

1. To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word.

2. To create new rhythms -as the expression of new moods -- and not to copy old rhythms, which merely echo old moods. We do not insist upon "free-verse" as the only method of writing poetry. We fight for it as for a principle of liberty. We believe that the individuality of a poet may often be better expressed in free-verse than in conventional forms. In poetry a new cadence means a new idea.

3. To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject. It is not good art to write badly of aeroplanes and automobiles, nor is it necessarily bad art to write well about the past. We believe passionately in the artistic value of modem life, but we wish to point out that there is nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned as an aeroplane of the year 1911.

4. To present an image (hence the name: "Imagist"). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of his art.

5. To produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite.

6. Finally, most of us believe that concentration is of the very essence of poetry.

There is nothing new under the sun, even the word, "renaissance," means a re-birth not a new birth, and of this the Imagists were well aware. This short creed was preceded by the following paragraph:

These principles are not new; they have fallen into desuetude. They are the essentials of all great poetry, indeed of all great literature.It is not primarily on account of their forms, as is commonly supposed, that the Imagist poets represent a changed point of view; it is because of their reactions toward the world in which they live.Now let us examine these tenets and see just what they mean, for I have observed that their very succinctness has often occasioned misunderstanding.

The first one is: "To use the language of common speech, but to employ always the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word."

The language of common speech means a diction which carefully excludes inversions, and the cliches of the old poetic jargon. As to inversions, we only need to remember Matthew Arnold's famous parody on this evil practice in his essay, "On Translating Homer":

Yourself, how do you do,
Very well, you I thank.

But, until very recently, it persisted in our poetry. One of the tenets in which all the poets of the present movement, Imagists and others, are agreed, however, is this abhorrence of the inversion." Cliche"' is a French word and means "stamped," as a coin, for instance. In other words, it is something in common use, and not peculiar to the author. Old, faded expressions like "battlemented clouds," and "mountainous seas," are cliches. Excellent the first time, but so worn by use as to convey no very distinct impression to the reader. As an example of the old poetic jargon, take such a passage as this:

To ope my eyes
Upon the Ethiope splendour
Of the spangled night.

It will at once be admitted that this is hardly the language of common speech. Common speech does not exclude imaginative language nor metaphor but it must be original and natural to the poet himself, not culled from older books of verse.

The exact word has been much misunderstood. it means the exact word which conveys the writer's impression to the reader. Critics conceive a thing to be so and so and no other way. To the poet, the thing is as it appears in relation to the whole. For instance, he might say:

Great heaps of shiny glass
Pricked out of the stubble
By a full, high moon.

This does not mean that the stones are really of glass, but that they so appear in the bright moonlight. It is the exact word to describe the effect. In short, the exactness is determined by the content. The habit of choosing a word as unlike the object as possible, much in vogue among the would-bemodern poets, is silly, and defeats its own object. One example of this kind which was brought to my attention some time ago was "a mauve wind." That is just nonsense. It is not exact in any sense, it connotes nothing. "Black wind," "white wind," "pale wind," all these are colours and therefore do not exactly describe any wind, but they do describe certain windy effects. "Mauve wind," on the other hand, is merely a straining after novelty, unguided by common-sense or a feeling for fitness.

So much for the first Imagist tenet. The second: "To create new rhythms-as the expression of new moods-and not to copy old rhythms which merely echo old moods. . . cadence means a new idea.

"This, of course, refers to the modern practice of writing largely in the free forms. It is true that modern subjects, modern habits of mind, seem to find more satisfactory expression in vers libre and "polyphonic prose" than in metrical verse. It is also true that "a new cadence means a new idea." Not, as has been stated by hostile critics, that the cadence engenders the idea; quite the contrary, it means that the idea clothes itself naturally in an appropriate novelty of rhythm. Very slight and subtle it may be, but adequate. The Imagist poets do not insist upon free-verse as the only method of writing poetry." In fact, the group are somewhat divided in their practice here.

This brings us to the third tenet: "To allow absolute freedom in the choice of subject." Again, over this passage, misunderstandings have arisen. "How can the choice of subject be absolutely unrestricted ? "—horrified critics have asked. The only reply to such a question is that one had supposed One were speaking to people of common-sense and intelligence. To make this passage intelligible to any others, it would be necessary to add "within the bounds of good taste." Of course, what one person might consider good taste another might think the reverse of it; all that the passage intends to imply is that this group restricts itself to no particular kind of subject matter. Old, new, actual, literary, anything which excites the creative faculty in the individual poet, is permissible; they are equally Imagists and poets if they write about ancient Greece, or about a cluster of chimney-stacks seen out of the window.

Number four says: "To present an image (hence the name 'Imagist'). We are not a school of painters, but we believe that poetry should render particulars exactly, and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous."

This paragraph has caused a great deal of confusion. It has been construed to mean that Imagist poetry is chiefly concerned with the presentation of pictures. Why this should have come about, considering that the words, "we are not a school of painters," were intended to offset any such idea, I do not know. The truth is that "Imagism," " Imagist," refers more to the manner of presentation than to the thing presented. It is a kind of technique rather than a choice of subject. "Imagism" simply means -- to quote from the second anthology, Some Imagist Poets, 1916 " a clear presentation of whatever the author wishes to convey. Now he may wish to convey a mood of indecision, in which case the poem should be indecisive; he may wish to bring before his reader the constantly shifting and changing lights over a landscape, or the varying attitudes of mind of a person under strong emotion, then his poem must shift and change to present this clearly." Imagism is presentation, not representation. For instance, Imagists do not speak of the sea as the "rolling wave" or the "vasty deep," high-sounding, artificial generalities which convey no exact impression; instead, let us compare these two stanzas in a poem of Mr. Fletcher's called "The Calm ":

At noon I shall see waves flashing,
White power of spray.
The steamers, stately,
Kick up white puffs of spray behind them.
The boiling wake
Merges in the blue-black mirror of the sea.

That is an exact image; but here is another from "Tide of Storms," in which the exactness of the image is augmented by powerful imaginative connotations:

Crooked, crawling tide with long wet fingers
Clutching at the gritty beach in the roar and spurt of spray,
Tide of gales, drunken tide, lava-burst of breakers,
Black ships plunge upon you from sea to sea away.

This vivid "presentation of whatever the author wishes to convey " is closely allied to the next tenet of the Imagist manifesto, which is: "To produce poetry which is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite." It must be kept in mind that this does not refer to subject but to the rendering of subject. I might borrow a metaphor from another art and call it "faithfulness to the architectural line." Ornament may be employed, so long as it follows the structural bases of the poem. But poetical jig-saw work is summarily condemned. That is why, although so much Imagist poetry is metaphorical, similes are sparingly used. Imagists fear the blurred effect of a too constant change of picture in the same poem.The last rule is very simple, it is that " concentration is of the very essence of poetry." A rule, indeed, as old as art itself, and yet so often lost sight of that it can hardly be too often affirmed. How many works of art are ruined by a too great discursiveness! To remain concentrated on the subject, and to know when to stop, are two cardinal rules in the writing of poetry.

We see therefore that these canons boil down into something like the following succinct statements: Simplicity and directness of speech; subtlety and beauty of rhythms; individualistic freedom of idea; clearness and vividness of presentation; and 'concentration. Not new principles, by any means, as the writers of the preface admit, but "fallen into desuetude.

"One characteristic of Imagist verse which was not mentioned in this preface, is:

Suggestion -- the implying of something rather than the stating of it, implying it perhaps under a metaphor, perhaps in an even less obvious way.

This poem of Mr. Fletcher's is an excellent example of Imagist suggestion:

THE WELL

The well is not used now
Its waters are tainted.

I remember there was once a man went down
To clean it.
He found it very cold and deep,
With a queer niche in one of its sides,
From which he hauled forth buckets of bricks and dirt.

The picture as given is quite clear and vivid. But the picture we see is not the poem, the real poem lies beyond, is only suggested.Of the poets we have been considering in these essays, Mr. Robinson is most nearly allied to the Imagists in the use of suggestion; but the technique he employs is quite unlike theirs. In Mr. Sandburg's "Limited," which I quoted in the last chapter, suggestion again is the poem, and his treatment of it there is almost Imagistic.

It must not be forgotten that however many rules and tenets we may analyze, such mechanical labour can never give the touchstone to style. That must lie in a sense which is beyond reason. As Matthew Arnold said of the grand style, "one must feel it." It is possible to determine the work of different painters by their brush strokes, but such knowledge is for the expert alone, and then only for purposes of authenticity. The layman who had no way of telling the work of Titian from that of Watteau by any other method than that of brush strokes, would make a poor connoisseur.I could go minutely into the work of these poets and show how each differs from the other -- the varying modes of expression, the individual ways of using words, the changing progression of the phrases, the subtle originality of rhythms -- but any one who could intelligently follow such an analysis would have no difficulty in determining Imagist work per se; and those who could not tell it at a glance, would find such hair-splitting dissection totally incomprehensible.

A few broad lines, then, shall serve us here, and I trust that, before I have finished, the reader will be incapable of making the blunder of that recent critic, who placed Mr. Frost and Mr. Masters in the Imagist group.I have shown certain aspects of the Imagist idiom, but we must not lose sight of the fact that all these barriers are arbitrary, and fade somewhat into each other. Much of this idiom is applicable to the other poets whom we have been considering, as well; some of it is peculiar to the Imagists. But it is principally in their manner of dealing with the idiom that we shall find the difference to lie. Let me insist once more that Imagism is only one section of a larger movement to which the six poets of these essays all belong.

(pp. 235-249)

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